Thirty years ago, Columbia surprised the Ivy League by claiming the baseball title for the first time in three decades. That team has also conquered the real world with an impressive mix of professionals.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s two Ivy League schools reached the NCAA College Baseball World Series. The 1968 EIBL (the Ivies, Army and Navy) champions, Harvard, boasted two future major leaguers in Richard "Pete" Varney and Ray Peters, and Dartmouth duplicated this feat two years later, with future major league pitchers Pete Broberg and Chuck Seelbach on its roster.
But in many ways the most interesting Ivy baseball team of that era is Columbia's 1976 EIBL champions, which remains the only Columbia team since 1944 to win an unshared baseball title. Its members became lawyers, physicians, executives, judges -- even a CEO. Freshman standout pitcher, and now judge, Rolando Acosta, explains it this way: "you get an Ivy League education, you expect to move on and do well." But even by this standard, the 1976 Lions seem to have an unusually high number of high performers.
The team was not expected to do well, having finished the 1975 season in last place, with a 7-16-1 record and a team batting average of .216. Coach Dick Sakala, a Columbia alum who played on the school's famed 1961 Ivy champion football team, was keeping expectations low. In recruiting Acosta "Dick Sakala was clear that Columbia had not won anything in baseball since World War II," remembers Acosta, "which became to me more of a challenge than a disincentive."
Acosta took on that challenge. Born in the Dominican Republic, he came to New York at 14 and soon made his presence known, pitching DeWitt Clinton High School to a city championship, earning all-city honors as a soccer goalie, and graduating fourth in a class of over 1,000 students. Despite scholarship offers from "baseball schools," according to Acosta, "my parents wanted me to get the best education I could get," and that led to Columbia. But once there he found the academic pressure nearly overwhelming. "[I was] ill prepared to compete in academics with kids from the top prep schools in the country," says Acosta, and he dropped soccer, for which he also had been recruited. When the baseball season came around, he knew that his time was at a premium, and he did not want to waste it on a losing team.
For the first time in 1976, freshmen were allowed to play Ivy League varsity baseball, and Acosta made the most of the opportunity. "He was the most confident freshman we'd ever seen," remembers shortstop Harry Bauld. "He refused to believe we would lose," concurs Ralph Izzo, then a mostly junior-varsity sophomore pitcher. "He was a little bit cocky," says senior co-captain Bob Kimutis. "I took him aside and said 'don't make comments when you haven't pitched yet.' But he could back it up." Bauld agrees. "He had great stuff and phenomenal control -- could put the ball over a matchbook."
Several other freshmen played key roles in Columbia's championship season. Outfielder Tony Ramirez, who batted third and hit a respectable .298, "was like Rod Carew, singles and doubles just flowed out of him," recalls Bauld. Joining him were Ricky Espitia, who was the best reliever that year with wins against Harvard and Cornell, and Tom Whelan, who compiled a surprising 4-1 record with a win over defending NCAA Division II champion Florida Southern.
Coach Sakala helped ease the freshman players' transition onto the team, says third baseman Kurt Peters. "He was laid back, but a good evaluator of talent. He saw Ramirez hit, and put him third, even though he was a freshman." Sakala's approach appealed to upperclassmen as well. "It was very undisciplined -- he let people come and go as they pleased," recalls Peters. But it worked. "It was truly a team -- there was no caste system," says second baseman Bart Purcell. "There was nice chemistry," adds Ramirez.
The numbers proved out the players' observations. Harry Bauld raised his batting average from .216 in 1975 to .369; senior catcher and co-captain Jim Bruno went from .159 to .286, and sophomore center fielder Mike Wilhite's average from .190 to .314. Junior second baseman Ed Backus hit .368 and pitched the title-clinching win against Penn.
The offensive force on this team, however, was senior first baseman Bob Kimutis. "He was a bigger than life character," remembers Peters. He was "this big intimidating Pittsburgh linebacker with a moustache like Teddy Roosevelt and a reputation as a beast," says Bauld. "Kimutis never waited very long to drill one into the river," (referring to the Harlem river "short porch" below the Columbia field).
Kimutis was another player who improved dramatically, raising his batting average from .231 to .369, and setting or tying four Columbia hitting records. He "rivaled Lou Gehrig as a dominating hitter this season" states his 1976 Columbia postseason biography, and that's heady company to be in.
Starting the season in Florida "nobody thought we would offer much," says Kimutis. After nine games they were a woeful 2-7. Then they started winning. "We swept the first weekend at Yale and Brown," says Kimutis, "and it was pretty obvious we would be a force." They were, going 15-3 for the rest of the season to wind up 17-10. A doubleheader sweep at Harvard was particularly sweet. "Harvard was completely obnoxious," recalls Peters, who bunted to reach base in a blowout win. When he reached the dugout Sakala questioned the bunt, given the lead. "Bob Kimutis comes up, spits a big line of tobacco juice, and says 'when you got 'em down, you stomp on 'em.'"
The EIBL title came down to two games at defending champion Penn, but by now momentum was with Columbia. Accompanied to Philadelphia by a busload of fans the Lions swept Penn. When a fly ball settled into left fielder Tony Ramirez's glove for the final out of a 5-4 win, Columbia had its first unshared title since 1944.
Columbia's first trip to the NCAA baseball tournament turned out to be anticlimactic, losing to Temple and St. John's in the Northeast Regional. There was a long wait after the end of the EIBL season and the start of the Regional and "the long layoff hurt us," says Kimutis. " It was long after graduation and we had stayed in a weirdly empty Carman Hall for weeks," wrote Bauld in an article describing the championship year. But this in no way overshadowed their achievements.
Three Lions -- Jim Bruno, Bob Kimutis, and Harry Bauld -- were named first team All-Ivy, each for the first time, and the team also set a standard of excellence for the next season. With reserves Tom Pacicco and Joe Greenaway moving up to share the catching role, senior Rob Murphy taking over Kimutis' spot at first, and pitcher Bob Klapisch transferring in from the University of Connecticut, Columbia repeated as EIBL champions in 1977, this time tied with Cornell (which won a playoff game for the right to proceed to the NCAAs). Bauld, Acosta and Wilhite earned first team All-Ivy honors -- Wilhite becoming the first African American to be named first team All-Ivy -- and Rolando Acosta was named Ivy Pitcher of the Year, a feat he would repeat in 1979.
And, seemingly, the team also set a standard of excellence to which they would adhere for the rest of their lives. Among the 18 former players whom Columbia can locate presently are four physicians, four attorneys, three engineers, and two corporate executives. Bob Klapisch, who pitched for the 1977 team, became a well-known sports columnist and is the author of five books. Two attorneys became judges. Joe Greenaway, who had only one at-bat on the 1976 team but a larger role with the later teams, later earned a J.D. degree from Harvard. In 1996 he was appointed a U.S. District Judge for the District of New Jersey.
Rolando Acosta stayed on at Columbia Law School. Baseball helped him get his first job after graduation -- as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society in the South Bronx. "We talked at great length of my baseball accomplishments [in my interview] when I only wanted to talk about my law school work," he remembers. He rose to head the Society's civil division office in Brooklyn before being appointed Human Rights Commissioner by Mayor David Dinkins. From there he was elected Supreme Court Justice in Manhattan, where he continues today. Acosta is the only judge of Dominican heritage to have been elected to the New York State Supreme Court.
"The confidence and determination that I developed playing sports I was able to translate in every aspect of my life, including in the law," remembers Acosta. " I remember those difficult days in law school or practicing law when I would get rid off my fear by telling myself: "bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, let's go after it..."
Ralph Izzo appeared in only two games that 1976 season, but went on to play baseball the rest of his undergraduate years. "I derived tremendous satisfaction from the fraternity of teammates," Izzo remembers. "It was a great way to bond with people in very challenging times." And, he points out, "I had better grades when I played baseball." Izzo went on to become president and chief operating officer of Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), a $12-billion electric and power utility corporation based in Newark, N.J.
Ask team members and, for the most part, they think these successes should be expected. "It's not surprising. Take any Ivy League team, and you'll find that to be the case," says Bart Purcell. "ANY cross section of Columbia grads will look like that," adds Harry Bauld.
Bob Kimutis looks at it slightly differently. "To come to Columbia you had to be an achiever, have lofty goals" says Kimutis. "As a team we were pretty competitive." But more importantly, they didn't lose track of why they were there. "We were students first," concludes Kimutis, "who happened to play baseball."
ed. note. Columbia's Andy Coakley Field is not only the long-time home of Lions baseball, but also the site of the first televised sporting event in history -- a Princeton-at-Columbia baseball doubleheader played on May 17, 1939, and commemorated by a plaque dedicated in April of 1989 by the Ivy League, Columbia and Princeton.
— Stephen Eschenbach